New Study: Traffic Data Does Not Support Current Plans to Spend $153 Million to Add Lanes on Colorado Route 470

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Report calls project a national example of waste, based on outdated assumptions

CoPIRG Foundation

A new report by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) Foundation identifies state plans to add lanes on Route-470 as a national example of wasteful highway spending based on its outdated assumptions. The study calls for instead investing scarce transportation dollars to better maintain existing roads and provide more transportation choices such as expanding transit and bike paths.

The $230 million highway expansion hasn’t received a lot of public scrutiny because it’s a large expansion project tucked behind a smaller retrofit. $77 million would go for necessary structural supports on the existing roadway. The remaining $153 million would be partly offset by new tolls on the added lanes.

“The state shouldn’t see spending on toll roads as free money, and Colorado shouldn’t prioritize building wider highways unless there is a pressing need,” said Phineas Baxandall, a Senior Analyst for the CoPIRG Foundation and co-author of the report. “The state’s own analysis shows that on balance, widening Route 470 won’t do much good. Meanwhile, the state has 8,600 structurally deficient bridges and many transit projects that should be a higher priority.”

The report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasteful Money and America’s Transportation Future,” notes that according to the state’s own analysis, there won’t be net benefits from widening Route 470 with additional tolled lanes until after 2032 and more likely 2040. And these projections that benefits would eventually exceed costs presume that driving will increase rapidly during that time. The report explains why those assumptions are highly speculative, especially given that per-capita driving has fallen across the country for nine years and Millennials have led the shift away from driving.

While data remain limited, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) traffic counter on Route-470 shows an average increase of 0.5% in annual trips along the road between 2002 and 2014. Yet CDOT assumes that traffic would increase a robust 1.9% yearly between 2015 through 2035. CDOT provides no explanation for this projected four-fold jump in driving growth, despite the fact that trends have been moving in the opposite direction for many years.

Plans for the project would require $127 million in state, federal and local government funds, but additional public money would be required if toll traffic does not meet CDOT’s unexplained forecasts.

With its limited resources dedicated to repair, Colorado has 8,612 bridges that engineers have deemed “structurally deficient,” according to the most recent (2013) National Bridge Inventory tabulated by the Federal Highway Administration (See “All Bridges” linked here).

“Americans have been driving less, but Colorado and federal governments are still spending billions of dollars on highway expansion projects based on outdated and obsolete assumptions,” said Baxandall. “The time has come to shift our resources to invest in 21st century priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges and providing more Americans with a wider range of transportation choices.”

The report can be read at this link here.

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The CoPIRG Foundation works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.